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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 28th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 4:55 pm, 28th June 2017

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, may just have taken my five minutes. I am also aware that when the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested that she would like to swap places with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, it is because we on this side of the Chamber can all see the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, looking very cross when we go beyond five minutes. So I realise that I had better try to stick within five minutes and not lose the House with this first definite Back-Bench speech.

The idea of Brexit is a very new concept. It may seem as if we have been talking about it for centuries—like those teaspoons of water—but in fact the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the idea of Brexit goes back only to 2012. It may be that we have talked about it on every day since 2012. I certainly remember the first time I heard the word “Brexit”. It was in a Liberal Democrat working group and I thought, “This is a very bad word because it sounds as if the idea of leaving the European Union is concrete and might actually happen”. I was clearly right to be rather worried about the concept of Brexit.

Five years on, Brexit has managed to have a referendum and a general election, where the Prime Minister said that she needed a bigger mandate to get a smoother transitional period for Brexit. Well, that did not go very well, did it? We do not now see a Government with an enhanced mandate for Brexit or a strong and stable Government. We see a rather weakened Government, and perhaps a greater opportunity for us to talk on a cross-party basis about Brexit and how the country moves forward.

The Queen’s Speech gave Brexit top billing. In the gracious Speech, we had the idea of making a success of Brexit and the eight pieces of legislation that are to be brought forward, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned. Taking back control will, it seems, take a long time—not just a 12-minute speech from a Member of this House but the next two years for this and the other place to think through the legislation that will be needed to ensure that when we finally leave the European Union we do not fall off the cliff edge.

In the notes associated with the gracious Speech, the Prime Minister said that Her Majesty’s Government would respond “with humility” to the views of the electorate. Can the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, tell Members whether that will mean a greater willingness on the part of the Government to listen to what the Opposition might want to say? I wonder whether they will understand that when amendments are put forward in a spirit of genuine scrutiny in a genuine attempt to make legislation better, it does not always mean that we are being unhelpful and that sometimes it would be better to stop and listen.

This time last year, some of us were talking about cross-party responses to the vote to leave the European Union. After I had mentioned that, it was pointed out to me that at the time it was not my party’s policy to look at cross-party solutions. So I am quite relieved that, since then, the outgoing leader of my party has suggested to the Prime Minister that she should think about working on a cross-party basis. Various Members of your Lordships’ House have talked about that today, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The point of dealing with an issue such as Brexit is that whether we wanted to leave the EU or not, it is something so cataclysmic for our country that we need to get it right—and it makes more sense to do that working together than simply being oppositional for the sake of it. But that of course means members of Her Majesty’s Government also being constructive, and listening.

For the last year, Members of your Lordships’ House with, I would suggest, only two exceptions—the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and whoever the fall guy is on the Government Front Bench—have all said that we should guarantee the rights of EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom. In July last year, I raised the issue for the fifth time in three weeks with the fourth different Minister. The Minister who had to respond on that occasion was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen. I am delighted therefore that he is in his place today and that whereas Prime Ministers, Chancellors and others, including Ministers for DExEU, have left office, he is still here to answer questions. I would like to know whether he is able to guarantee that the costs of applying for residency and the rules that will be in place will be simple. At the moment, we are told that they will be brought forward in due course. I am winding up now. This time last year, Ministers had two stock answers. One was, “Nothing changes until the day we leave”. The other was, “This is a matter for the next Prime Minister”. I am assuming that the noble and learned Lord will not be saying the latter today—but we can live in anticipation.